Black Women Who Slayed History: Eartha Kitt

This Black History Month, we’re highlighting the black woman who helped make our world what it is today. Today, we honor Eartha Kitt.

Fire and Ice.

Two words that describes Eartha to a tee. It was even the name of the Revlon lipstick named after her by her former love and founder of the cosmetic brand, Charles Revson.

Born January 17, 1927 in North, SC, singer and actress Eartha Mae Kitt didn’t have the most welcoming start in life. At a young age, she was abandoned by her mother for another man, then was left to grow up on a cotton plantation and earn her keep with an abusive relative.

She not only suffered at home, but in society as well. Due to Eartha’s light skin complexion because of her mixed race, she was often bullied by her peers and being referred to as “yellow gal,” which back then in the South wasn’t a term of endearment. Being of lighter skin tone meant you were automatically assumed to think you were better than everyone else, even if you were just a kid.

She wasn’t accepted by either black or white community, which is something she carried with her throughout her life. The South became an unwanted setting for her, but she would soon find solace with a move that head started her career.

READ ALSO: Black Women Who Slayed History: Billie Holiday

Sent to live with her aunt in Harlem, 8-year-old Eartha would eventually come to enroll in the New York School of Performing Arts, where her distinct individuality would blossom into something spectacular. Because of a dare by a friend at 16, Eartha, a shy teen at the time, auditioned for the renowned Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. Without surprise the young entertainer won a scholarship to join the group as a dancer and vocalist. Eartha would go on to tour worldwide with the company for a number of years.

Who said dares couldn’t be a good thing?

By 20, she was discovered by a nightclub owner in Paris that would eventually lead her to becoming a popular nightclub act as the featured singer.

Calling her “the most exciting woman in the world,” director Orson Welles was so intrigued by the sex kitten persona that grew her fame, he casted her as Helen of Troy in 1951’s stage play Dr. Faustus. Her career would soon skyrocket, when she made appearances in 1952’s New Faces; starred alongside Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues; launched her music career with hits such as “C’est Si Bon” and “Santa Baby”; and played opposite Sammy Davis in Anna Lucasta, which she earned a Oscar nomination for in 1959.

But it wasn’t until 1960 that she would play one of her most memorable roles to date, Catwoman in the TV series Batman. Taking over the role from Julie Newmar, Eartha made the villainous she-devil all her own. Her graceful, catlike demeanor, and unique voice made the character what it is today. Eartha Kitt embodied Catwoman. Even though her appearances on the show were short-lived, its impact granted the series another life of reruns.

READ ALSO: Black Women Who Slayed History: Shonda Rimes

She wasn’t just an all-around entertainer — singer, actress, dancer, voice actress, comedian — but an activist as well. She was involved in social issues including being a vocal advocate for LGBT rights and supporting same-sex marriages.

Never one to hold her tongue, Eartha gave it to former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. At a White House luncheon for juvenile delinquency and crime, Ms. Kitt decided to take the time to voice her thoughts on the subject after Lady Bird asked her about the Vietnam War replying, “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” 

Lady Bird didn’t take too well to her remarks. This took an extreme toll on her career in the U.S. and she was branded by the CIA as a “sadistic nymphomaniac”.

Eartha later moved to London to relaunched her career in Europe with her daughter, Kitt Shapiro.

Fast forward to the 2000s and well into her 70s, Eartha continued to be the hard working woman she was. She received a Tony nom for her work in The Wild Party and two back to back Emmy wins for the animation film the Emperor’s New School in 2007 and 2008. 

She kept winning over crowds until her death on December 25, 2008 after her fight with colon cancer.

She was and still is a truly divine woman.

For more on Eartha Kitt click here, here, and here.

Photo in featured image via Allan Warren

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